Where Hemingway used to hunt ducks

A journey to the original Venice beyond mass tourism

By Cyriacus W. Schultze


The trip through the lagoon from Marco Polo Airport to Mazzorbo Island in the hotel’s own water taxi takes only a good quarter of an hour. Quite inconspicuously, a small, colourful row of houses stretches out in the evening sun along a waterway that separates the island from its sister Mazzorbetto. A church tower – the last evidence of the former monastery and church of San Michele Arcangelo – rises from the adjacent historic wall and casts a long shadow over the area. A fishing boat chugs through the gleaming water. Small waves gurgle and slosh against the quay wall. Otherwise, we are surrounded by complete silence. Apart from a discreet logo on one of the windows, there is no indication that one of the most exciting tourism and wine projects of modern times has been created behind these walls: VENISSA.

We are in the Serenissima for a few days to discover what the house brochure announces as “living the native Venice”. And admittedly, already now one feels light years away from the noisy hustle and bustle of the tourist crowds on St. Mark’s Square. After a short registration at the reception, we have to get back on the boat, which will take us to the neighbouring island of Burano, where our accommodation is located. Through the Venissa project, for the first time ever it is possible for travelers to stay overnight on Burano.

The picturesque place with its colourful houses evokes pure enthusiasm and is distantly reminiscent of “La Boca” – the historic and equally colourful port district of Buenos Aires. The canals are sometimes so narrow and crowded with small fishing boats that it is almost impossible to turn around in them. Here, in one of the small side streets not far from the old fish market, is our accommodation: “La Casa del Pescatore”, one of three townhouses scattered all over the island, which had been carefully and authentically restored by Venissa.

As for Mazzorbo, there is a soothing silence here as well, because the day tourists have long since left Burano. Once again the residents are among themselves. No vaporetto passes by, no water taxi ploughs through the canals, far and wide there is no gondola to be seen, no photographing tourists with selfie sticks, no Chinese travel groups and also no African bag sellers. Instead, women sit in shady, dreamy courtyards, embroidering or chatting or both. Men with weather-beaten faces arrange and mend fishnets or drink their aperitivo in the surrounding bars, whose doors are wide open at this hour to let in the cool evening air. A few children play barefoot in the alleys. In the silvery hazy backlight of the lagoon, the churches and palaces of Venice glitter on the horizon. From here, a 60-meter wooden bridge takes you back to Mazzorbo, Venissa’s main house.

Time travel: The islands where it all began

In the 1st century AD, the islands of the lagoon offered northern Italian settlers, farmers and fishermen shelter from the invasions of the Goths, Franks and Lombards. Fleeing the barbarians, they settled on the islands of Torcello, Mazzorbo, Mazzorbetto and Burano, which soon became the center of politics and trade. In the 10th century, Torcello had close to 20,000 inhabitants and was larger and richer than Venice. Vegetables were grown and vines were cultivated on Sant’Erasmo, Le Vignole and Mazzorbo. But after the 12th century, this flourishing period ended and the islands sank into insignificance. The lagoon became swampy and malaria epidemics threatened. The inhabitants left the islands for Venice or Murano, taking with them everything that could be used as building material. And then centuries passed.

Some splendour returned in the 1940s and 1950s when the Cipriani family invested in Torcello and founded the “Locanda Cipriani”. Writer Ernest Hemingway stayed at the small inn for months, hunting ducks and writing his novel “Across the River and into the Trees”. Winston Churchill, Charlie Chaplin and Maria Callas came – and after them, many artists, aristocrats, politicians and members of the international jet set in search of a new hideaway. Otherwise, only a few day tourists strayed into this part of the lagoon.

Again many years passed until finally in 2006 the property on Mazzorbo was kissed out of its slumber by the Bisol-family. Gianluca Bisol, who is one of the most respected producers of Prosecco from Valdobbiadene, had discovered a few stunted vines of the autochthonous Dorona grape variety in 2002 in the overgrown gardens on Torcello. In the shadows of the Basilica of Santa Maria Assunta he fell in love with the small archipelago. Driven by a vision to revive the “lost grape” Dorona, Gianluca collaborated with his brother Desiderio (the Bisol family’s chief oenologist) and respected Tuscan winemaker Roberto Cipresso, and planted the walled vineyard on Mazzorbo. Not easy with the salty-slaggy ground. The dream costs time and daily labour. And a fortune. At the same time, the family transformed the farm buildings, fishermen’s houses, warehouses and cellars into a comfortable hotel and restaurant.

Ernest Hemingway – hunting on the lagoon c.1945

Next to the wooden bridge between Burano and Mazzorbo, there is a small gate in the medieval wall. From here you can enter a wildly romantic fruit, herb and vegetable garden that is open to the public but overlooked by most tourists: Venissa’s pantry! The lagoon area has always had the best conditions for growing vegetables, thanks to fertile clay soil and a mild maritime climate. Among flowering artichokes, beans and rosemary bushes are psychedelic and colourful works of art by Venetian artists Bluer, Baroldi and Bisetto, installed here as part of the VENICE TO EXPO. Fish and frogs live in an old and restored pond connected by a canal to the lagoon. But the majority of the garden is occupied by the vineyard, whose trellis are each bordered by large rose bushes. The garden is overlooked by a beautiful campanile, that freestanding bell tower that had already caught our eye upon arrival.

At the end of the grounds are the main buildings: hotel reception, six guest rooms, a wine cellar, an osteria and the Michelin-starred restaurant. It quickly becomes clear to the visitor: Venissa is much more than “just” a winery, a hotel or a restaurant. Rather, it is a discreet retreat, a statement and an enjoyable overall concept that illustrates to every visitor the holistic meaning of the marketing-infested term sustainability. Here, workplaces and living spaces have been created according to ecological and economic, but also cultural and social criteria, without appearing academic or dogmatic. It is all about the sensual experience and unmistakably the focus is on enjoyment, food, drink, retreat and relaxation. The service is natural and friendly but without the excited perfectionism of the luxury hotel industry usually found in Venice. A pleasant feeling of being at ease spreads – pure deceleration at the highest level. In other words: Venissa is not a hotel – it is rather the feeling of having arrived in a peaceful setting where you can gracefully unwind.

Pure understatement

Over a welcome sip of prosecco, we meet Matteo Bisol. The charismatic and young general manager of Venissa is the son of Gianluca Bisol and has been with the Venissa project since the beginning. In just a few years, he has put together his current team and done some real pioneering work.

As Matteo guides us through the hotel and the various rooms, he explains his concept of an albergo diffuso, which is a kind of decentralized hotel. “Part of the overall experience for our guests is that they stay in traditional houses in the middle of Burano’s society and have a fisherman, boat builder or merlettaia (veil maker or embroiderer of handmade Burano lace) as a neighbour, but without having to give up the comfort and service of a hotel,” he explains to us. “We renovated the rooms with natural materials, working with designers and artisans from the Serenissima: ornate tiles and hand-laid terrazzo, gold leaf and Murano glass, parquet flooring and ceiling beams made of wood sourced from the foothills of the nearby Southern Alps.” While the guest rooms in the main house are more of a rustic-modern mix, the houses on Burano (Casa del Pescatore, Casa della Voga, La Madonnina) are visually dominated by a minimalist, almost spartan understatement. But of course, nothing is missing: from the small kitchenette with coffee maker, kettle and fridge, to wifi and air conditioning, to the fluffy towels and amenities in the bathrooms.

After the tour of the house and an exclusive wine tasting, Matteo escorts us to the restaurant terrace, which has filled up completely in the meantime. Things are a bit more down-to-earth in the neighbouring osteria: fish – gilthead sea bream, sea bass, shrimp, eel, and turbot – live on the doorstep and are delivered daily by Burano’s fishermen. Salads and vegetables grow and thrive behind the ancient walls. Recipes are passed down from generation to generation by Burano’s residents. And the seasons alone are the blueprint for the daily changing menu.

Kitchen of the eight hands and four hearts

Venissa’s Michelin-starred restaurant is idyllically situated between the main canal-side houses and the vines. Nowhere else in the world have I experienced the farm-to-table concept in such perfection: to the right of the table the lush (organic) fruit and vegetable gardens, and to the left the kitchen, where everything is freshly prepared. Four young chefs experiment and conjure up their vision of Venetian cuisine with finesse and the very best ingredients, which of course come from the surrounding area or the lagoon. Each of them is solely responsible for one course. The concept of a “kitchen of eight hands and four hearts” has been thought up by Matteo. Sabina Joksimovic from Serbia conjures up the amuse bouches and predominantly vegetarian antipasti, Alba Rizzo from Bergamo prepares the wonderfully light appetizers, Michelangelo Doria from Puglia makes the delicious main courses and Serena Baiano from Naples creates stunning desserts. This evening we will experience a 5-course menu where the Slow Food concept has been implemented in its purest form: Lukewarm scampi on a bean crème with beet and chicory; scallops on celery mousseline with salted almonds, sesame seeds and flowers; small spaghetti with zucchini and mint sauce, marinated anchovies and nut crumble; mullet and small crabs with wild herbs and vegetables; and to finish, a chocolate mousse boldly and perfectly combined with a seaweed tartlet and saltwater sorbet.

So you know Venice? Really?

Staying at Venissa is extremely comfortable, pleasant and relaxing. You are in Venice, so to speak, without being in Venice. The osteria and restaurant offer fantastic cuisine without compromise. The garden area is the perfect retreat to escape the hustle and bustle of the world for a few hours – armed with a good book and a glass of wine. The small islands of Burano and Torcello, with their off-centre island location in the northern lagoon, invite you to take extended discovery tours. And the room rates between 150 and 200 euros per night are not only worth the money but also a fraction of what you pay in the better-known luxury hotels. If you’ve never been here before and expect gondoliers warbling “O sole mio”, magnificent Doge’s palaces, famous coffee shops, and the never-ending hustle and bustle, you’ll probably be rather happy at the Gritti Palace, Danieli, Cipriani & Palazzo Vendramin, Cima Rosa, and especially the magnificent Aman Venice. But then you should plan at least a day trip to Mazzorbo, Burano and Torcello and lunch at Venissa. It is really worth it!

Book your journey:
For Clatu-Travel-Members via → www.heavenly-travels.com
Direct Booking → Venissa Italy

Fondamenta S. Caterina, 3
30142 Mazzorbo Venezia

Tel. +39 041 52 72 281

How to get there:
The best option is by plane to Venice Marco Polo Airport. From there it is a short boat trip through breathtaking countryside and canals.
Arriving by train or travelling from Venice, take the Vaporetto line nr. 12 from “Fondamente Nove” (35 min) or a water taxi (20 min)

Google Maps Link

Cyriacus is the publisher and co-author of “www.gourmet-travels.com”, the food blog “www.culturefood.org“, the stock images platform “www.myfavourite.photo” and founder of the Clatu Group.  He’s working as a business consultant for the food and hospitality industry and always looking for entrepreneurial ways to drive positive change in the world…

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